A short guy in a grey suit asks me to dance. Shards of light glint off his wire-rimmed glasses as the bass throbs. He shouts, “I’m from Switzerland.”
I shout back, “American.”
We gyrate with the others until the music slows. He takes me in his arms and tells me his family is wealthy. “Would you like to visit Switzerland? Go skiing?” He shows me his glittering watch. “We could go to my apartment and get to know each other better.”
I look over his shoulder for Lydia. She is at a table on the perimeter sipping a foamy stout.
“Not tonight.” I slip his arm from my waist. “I need to check in with my friend.”
Before I even settle on the bench, there’s a voice behind me, “Mind if we join you?”
Lydia and I look up at a tall guy with shaggy chestnut hair. Next to him, a young man not much taller than I am with straight black hair, and smiling brown eyes. I know immediately which one I will dance with all night, not lanky Tony who says he’s from Ireland, Lydia can have him. It’s Selva whose name means jungle in Spanish even though he says he’s Malaysian with an unpronounceable six syllable surname.
We leave the club late, sweaty and breathless as Tony hails a hack.
We crowd into the backseat of the black cab, Tony, Lydia, me, and Selva.
The driver asks, “Where to?” with a Caribbean accent.
Tony leans forward. “Croydon.”
I turn to Selva. “No one in Britain seems to be British. Not in London anyway. My landlord and his sister are from Poland. I buy hot naan from a Pakistani tandoori. The doner kebab shop on Bayswater is run by Turks.”
Selva smiles and puts his arm around me. “There’s no escaping The Empire.”
After a twenty-minute ride, the car parks in front of what looks like a haunted mansion. Selva helps me out of the vehicle.
While Tony pays the cabby under November moonlight, I survey the vast lawns and dormant flower beds. Skeletal bushes and swaying tree limbs scratch the stars.
Lydia takes my arm. “Is this where you guys live?”
Tony opens a rusty iron gate and slowly says, “Yes.”
Selva walks through the opening. “But we also work here.”
Lydia hesitates. “Well, what do you do? What is this place?”
Selva laughs. “It’s an asylum.”
“As in insane?” I remain beside Lydia.
“As in psychiatric hospital. Tony and I are male attendants, and we have rooms on the grounds.”
Tony beckons. “Come on, we’ll show you.”
Under the circumstances, I can’t believe I said no to Swiss aristocracy. And yet I take Selva’s hand. Lydia takes Tony’s, and we enter the side door of what looks like a long dormitory.
Moon shadows stretch from a bank of tall windows across the corridor to a series of endless doors. As we creep down the hallway, I wonder what tortured souls lie in the beds on the other side of the wall.
Selva opens one of the doors and turns on the light. “These are my quarters.”
I see Lydia and Tony disappear into the room next door. There is nowhere to sit but on an iron bedstead pushed against the wall. A sink opposite completes the accommodations. Above the sink is a mirror and a glass shelf featuring a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a figurine with multiple arms and the head of an elephant.
I point to the small statue. What’s that?”
Selva sits beside me. “That’s Ganesh, the Hindu god who removes obstacles whenever you begin something new.” He grins and lies back on the bed.
“Oh.” I remain upright with my feet on the floor.
He caresses the long hair flowing down my back.
“You remind me of my mother.”
“Why?” I twist to face him.
He smooths the bed for me to lie down beside him. “Because she’s beautiful and kind.”
I squint at his line. “You’ve only known me a few hours. How can you know I’m kind?”
He continues smiling. “I just know.”
“Well, you danced with me,” he bursts out laughing, “and I’m not a very good dancer.”
I laugh too and lie back. “This whole situation is ridicules. I have a serious boyfriend.”
“Yet, you are here with me.” He smiles.
Starring at the ceiling, I just know that this boy, whose name means the habitat of savages and choking snakes, is kinder than the boyfriend I have back home, and when Lydia interrupts by opening the door, I know I want to see him again.
Next weekend Tony and Selva invite us to go dancing at another club. When we take a breather at a tiny table, Selva leans in. “I’m going to visit my parents in Kuala Lumpur for three weeks. Would you like to come?”
I’m tempted to ask if his family is wealthy, and will there be skiing. “You’re kidding right? About me going with you—half way around the world?”
“No, I want you to meet my mother.”
Again with the mother. I can’t believe my brain is actually considering the details. “Look, my semester is over in about three weeks, and Lydia and I have already booked a flight to check out Paris before we head home to the States.”
I hate the word bummer, but his British accent makes everything sound cool.
“Can I at least call you when I get back? I really like you.” The light in his eye tells me it’s so, but I don’t expect to hear from him.
The week Selva leaves for Malaysia, Princess Anne and Mark Phillips are married in Westminster Abbey. Lydia and I are among the throng gathered near Buckingham Palace, the destination of the royal couple’s fairy tale coach. We watch stoic guards in red coats and bearskin hats open the iconic gate. We wait until the newlyweds wave from the balcony in all their finery.
This launches a last-minute blitz of all things British whenever I’m not studying for finals. I check out Covent Garden where Eliza Doolittle sold her flowers and the British Museum full of foreign gods and ideal marble men plundered while Britannia ruled the waves. I take The Tube to The Tate full of moody Turner landscapes, and massive Henry Moore figures full of holes. I wander through Kensington Gardens and discover the Peter Pan statue. Lydia and I make a point to return to Johnny’s Fish and Chips served in newspaper, at the foot of Tower Bridge, a stone’s throw from Big Ben, Parliament, and the Tower of London where Henry the VIII lopped the heads off inconvenient wives.
It’s so hard to leave this legendary city, I neglect packing until the night before our flight to France. How to fit my few mementos into a small blue American Tourister? I roll a package of Digestive brand biscuits in my pajamas and fold a mohair shawl from Scotland for my mom on top of my sweaters.
The phone rings. I drop the black derby I bought on Portobello Road for my dad, and the antique safari helmet for my brother.
“It’s Selva. I’m back. How about a party at a friend’s house tonight? I have gifts from Malaysia.”
“I’m leaving in the morning.” I look at Lydia, also packing, and mouth, “Croydon?”
Lydia shakes her head, “Are you crazy?”
“Yes,” I speak into the phone, and write down the party’s address.
It’s almost midnight by the time I navigate to a townhouse jammed with people. I’m introduced as Selva’s American girlfriend. We drink in the kitchen, dance in the living room, and around three in the morning, as the crowd thins, he pulls out his gifts: a cheap necklace with a crucifix for me and four palm place mats for my mom.
I take the crucifix, “What do I do with this? Put it beside my toothbrush?”
He laughs and hooks the clasp at the back of my neck. “No, silly. You wear it over your heart.”
I whisper, “Thanks,” thinking I will ditch this superstitious hunk of junk asap, but I finger the place mats. “These are beautiful.”
“I hiked into the jungle to buy them from an indigenous tribe and paid for them with salt.”
“It’s more valuable than money in the jungle. They use it to cure fish and meat, to flavor bland cassava, and as an antiseptic.”
“Interesting.” I stand. “Well, I’ve got to go.”
“There are no more trains at this hour.” He plumps a pillow from the couch, and lays down on the living room floor. “Why don’t you spend the night? Gatwick is only twenty minutes away.”
I look at others already passed out on the carpet, and curl up in his arms.
In the morning light, heavy headed and rumpled, I check my map of London and realize the airport is twenty minutes south of Croydon. My flat is twenty minutes in the opposite direction, and I still have to retrieve my things. Panicked, I step over snoring bodies, and Selva helps me call a hack. We kiss good-bye, and I press my face against the window as the cab races north.
“Please, wait!” I yell to the driver when we get to my flat, run up three flights of stairs, strap on my brother’s safari helmet, grab my suitcase in one hand and my dad’s derby in the other, and lunge into the vehicle. When we get to Gatwick, Lydia is wringing her hands at the gate. I sigh. We board, and take off for the continent.
It's not as if the City of Lights isn’t wonderful: almond croissants and baguettes with cheese right around the corner from our tiny room on the Rive Gauche opposite Notre Dame. We view the real Mona Lisa, Les Champs-Élysée, and L’Arc de Triomphe. A couple Algerian guys, no one in Paris is French, invite us to their flat for couscous and vegetables that we eat with our fingers out of a common bowl. But when they urge us to spend the night, I’m eager to return to our room with a bathroom down the hall that has scraps of newsprint nailed to the wall as toilet paper. Because it’s Selva I’m thinking of—and his gifts.
Years ago, I thought his name meant jungle. It does in Spanish. But in Kuala Lumpur where they speak Tamil and Hindi, Selva can mean: charming, jewel, wealth, simple joy, or lucky person. I no longer believe in luck, rather in the over-arching sovereignty of a God who knows the beginning and the end. A God who led me to a young man who had nothing but a light in his eye that made me feel beautiful and kind. A young man who offered an extravagant invitation to his home far away, who gave me the symbol of a God too big to fit on a shelf.
And those place mats? My mom, after hearing Selva's story, kept her gift until she was no longer able to keep her own home. At the time, I understood that sacrifice makes a present more costly, but growing up in suburbia, I didn’t know that salt is a universal healing agent and preservative. I didn’t connect the fact that the mats were made from fronds like those the crowd waved as they shouted hosanna to the King come to cure our rot and offer us delicious life. So many symbols, so many clues. I couldn’t see any of this in 1973. I was a swine before pearls.
Selva was the Jewel in the crown of my semester in London. My prince charming. Did God just know that one day I would understand the crazy love of the crucifix? That He was saving a place for me at His banquet. That as a believer, He destined me to become the salt of the earth?